Increased Productivity Requires Focused Attention & Changing Bad Habits

In today’s workplace people are working harder than ever, yet the results may not reflect this in a way that shows increased productivity. Part of it may be due to a lack of focus on getting results. And part may be because bad habits keep us from succeeding.

Getting results requires focusing on only that which matters. Self help author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy describes what he calls the “law of three” in business management. According to this law, aside from the three most important tasks or results you want to achieve, everything else contributes just 10 percent of actual results.

Unfortunately, most people spend 90 perecent of their time on activities that contribute very little and then wonder why they are making so little progress.

Tracy suggests you first determine the three most important results you must achieve in order to be successful. Typically, it’s one primary result with two supporting results that are essential in order to succeed in achieving the first. For example, the first could be sales volume, while the second and third would be effective marketing to attract qualified prospects and effective selling to convert prospects into customers.

Next you need to eliminate all the “busy work” you end up doing each day that gets in the way of focusing all your time and energy on these three results 90 percent of the time.

Take a critical look at your job description. Does it acurately reflect what the company needs you to do in order to succeed in your three most important results? If not, see if you can refine it and then present this to your manager. You are not looking to be confrontational, but you want to ensure your time and energy is used to produce results the company wants and needs from you.

The other side of the equation has to do with your own bad habits that may get in the way of reaching results. This is where you have to take an honest appraisal of yourself and identify what you do habitually that keeps you from staying focused on your three results.

“Success and failure are more a result of your habits than anything else,” says Tracy

If you can increase your good habits and reduce your bad habits, you will dramatically contribute to your success in life. This is easier said than done, of course. There is a saying that bad habits are like comfortable chairs—easy to get into, but hard to get out of.

Here are 12 steps for changing a bad habit:

1.      Make a Plan Write this down; make the bad habit specific and describe what it looks and feels like to be gone.
One at a Time – As tempting as it may be to take on more than one, stay focused so you can be successful with just one habit at a time.
Take a Full 30 Days – There is no research to say exactly how long it takes to break a bad habit, but if this is something you do all the time then    30 days should be sufficient.
Acknowledge Your Triggers – You know better than anyone what triggers your bad habit, so you must determine a strategy to avoid or counter them. And for each trigger, determine a good habit you can use in place of your bad habit.
Avoid Environments/People That Trigger You – If there is a place or person that makes this habit more likely to show up, see if you can avoid it or them for awhile.
Acknowledge Your Obstacles – You also know what gets in the way of changing your behavior better than anyone. So think of a creative strategy to overcome them.
Ask for Help and Support – Don’t go about this without others to cheer you on and help you when you are weak.
Become Aware of What You Tell Yourself – All too often what we say to ourselves can counter what we try to achieve. Be mindful of this inner dialogue and correct it if necessary.
Stay Healthy – Take care of your physical health by eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
Determine Disincentives for Failure – Make failing to change this habit detrimental in some way that will help you succeed.
Give Yourself a Reward – Acknowledge and celebrate your success with a reward that will continually remind you of why you earned it.
If you Fail, Start Again – Like learning anything new, it may take more than one attempt to succeed. Don’t get discouraged, find out what went wrong, correct it, and start over again.

Bad habits can often sabotage your attempt to focus on the most important work at hand. It takes courage and commitment to remove these bad habits, but once you do, you will be rewarded for a lifetime.

This combination of focused attention on your three most important results and removing habits that get in the way of succeeding are the keys to making your hard work lead to increased productivity.

Engaged Employees Make all the Difference

Is employee engagement really important or is it just nice to have and something to think about once economic times improve?

The fact is companies with a high percentage of engaged employees are more profitable than those with fewer engaged workers. High engagement can improve employee retention and raise customer perceptions that directly lead to better financial performance.

Overall, most companies have about one-third of their employees fully engaged in their work. Yet recent surveys suggest that as many as four out of five workers would leave their current job if they could, but most think they would have trouble finding another one right now.

Engaged employees are those who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work. Those who are not engaged are satisfied but are not emotionally connected to their workplace and are less likely to put in extra effort. Those who are actively disengaged are emotionally disconnected from the work and workplace and jeopardize the performance of their teams. Their physical health may also be at risk.

A recent Gallup survey found that in the average big company only 33% of employees describe themselves as fully engaged in their work, 49% say they are not engaged and 18% say they are actively disengaged.

Gallup’s research found there is a strong relationship between engagement and high-performance outcomes which include customer loyalty, profitability, productivity, turnover, safety incidents, shrinkage, absenteeism, patient safety incidents, and quality (defects). They also learned that organizations with a high percentage of engaged employees have nearly four times the earnings per share growth rate compared to organizations in the same industry with lower enagement.

In what Gallup calls world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged workers to actively disengaged workers is about 10:1. Whereas in average organizations, the ratio of engaged workers to actively disengaged workers is about 2:1.

All too often, employee engagement is viewed as an HR initiative to improve morale among employees when things aren’t going so well. These intiatives do little to raise the level of employee engagement, and sometimes they even undermine it. That’s because employee engagement is distinctively different from employee satisfaction, motivation and organizational culture.

In the best companies employee engagement is a strategic approach for driving improvement that is directly linked to achieving corporate goals and organizational change. It can lead to employees who are more emotionally attached, involved and fully commited to their organizations. And it can profoundly increase productivity.

Employee engagement should be an organization-wide effort, and so much of its execution is dependent on good managers. As I wrote about in a previous post, employees join an organization based on the reputation of the company or the quality of its products or service. But they most often leave because of their manager.

In a down economy when hiring is stagnant and organizations are trying to get the most out of the people they already have, managers can engage employees in many ways. This includes clarifying expectations, providing adequate resources, giving recognition, encouraging their professional development, helping them connect to the organization’s purpose, and measuring and discussing progress more often than once each year.

Managers who do these as part of an overall employee engagement strategy are more likely to produce high-quality work and retain employees.

At a time with high unemployment, stagnant wages and workers staying in their jobs only because they fear they cannot find something better, it is the perfect time to execute an employee engagement strategy to energize your people.

In most organizations employees are the biggest expense and, far and away, the greatest asset. Now is the time to invest in a strategy that will raise the number of fully engaged employees and increase your profitability. You’ll be glad you did both now and when the economy improves.

Email is our Biggest Distraction

We’re all beginning to learn and accept that multitasking is indeed a myth. Changing our multitasking behavior will lead to greater productivity, but it will also take time. Email may be the right place to begin.

Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done,” argues that the most common kind of multitasking doesn’t boost productivity—it actually slows you down. While background tasking like watching television while you work out can be fine, what he calls “switchtasking” is trying to juggle two tasks by refocusing your attention back and forth between them, and losing time and progress in the switch.

I contend email is the biggest distraction and the thing we try to multitask with the most.

In 2006 more than 6 trillion email messages were reportedly sent everyday. Last year that increased to an average of 160 messages per day per office worker. More than 88 percent of these messages were considered junk—spam, commercial newsletters or other unsolicited messages. And though filters can help reduce the junk, email still consumes way too much of our time.

Two things may help: 1) reduce the number of email messages you send and reply to, and 2) read email less frequently.

I wrote in an earlier post that email messages can easily work against you in conveying information. What may seem entirely clear to you when you write and send a message, can be totally misunderstood or misinterpreted by the receiver. This is due to limitations of the written word as well as other factors.

You can find lots of advice on the web with regard to email etiquette and advice on when and when not to use email.

Jim Gerace, who was earlier vice president of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, issued employee guidelines on the proper use of email. I think the most important are:

  • Email should bring closure to work, not create more work.
  • Before you write an email, ask yourself if calling or visiting the recipient will bring better communication.
  • Keep emails short. Pretend that the recipient isn’t going to open the email and you need to make your point in just the subject line or the space in the preview pane.
  • If just one person needs information or clarification, don’t send it to a group.
  • Stay accountable. Sending an email doesn’t transfer responsibility.
  • Don’t send another email asking why you didn’t get an answer to the first one; call or visit the person you need information from.
  • Don’t spend more than five minutes dealing with an email. When you go over this limit, stop and make a phone call.

Timothy Ferriss, in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” recommends looking at email only twice a day in order to focus on the job at hand. He does the same with phone calls so he can focus on getting things done rather than constantly losing time and productivity through what Crenshaw calls switchtasking.

Ferriss ensures senders and callers all know his unavailability because he adds this to his signature on his email messages as well as his voice mail message.

Not everyone can follow this advice, but I suspect most of us probably can and should. Simply turning off the sound and pop-ups for when a new email message arrives may better enable us to stay focused on our task.

What about you? Do you measure your day by how many email messages you receive? If you made the choice to no longer be ruled by your inbox, would you be more productive?

Should Fun be Mandated at Work?

Fun activities in the workplace can often improve employee engagement. When these are mandated or poorly concocted, however, the fun can actually be counterproductive and reduce overall morale.

Some companies have used fun activities as a way to recruit new employees. It is used to increase customer engagement and even to help leverage social media opportunities. But is this fun really effective if it is mandated rather than grown more spontaneously?

Some examples of the fun activities I’m speaking of include:

  • TD Bank, the American arm of Canada’s Toronto Dominion, has a “Wow!” department that sends out teams in costumes to “surprise and delight” successful workers.
  • Google offers employees volleyball courts, roller hockey and bicycle paths to encourage hanging out longer in the workplace.
  • The London branch of Red Bull recently installed a slide in its office.
  • Acclaris, an IT company, has a “chief fun officer.”
  • Twitter claims one of its core values as creating “fun and a little weirdness.”
  • Zappos encourages workers to form noisy conga lines and then single out an individual colleague for praise, whereupon the person must wear a silly hat for a week.

What is it about fun that makes it necessary for employers to create it for us? Is this due to much of the younger workforce having had so many structured fun activities as children: heavily scheduled playdates by helicopter mothers, overly supervised slumber parties, too little downtime between extracurricular activities?

Encouraging employees to have fun while at work is all well and good, but this shouldn’t be a requirement. And what that fun looks like should not be decided by public relations or human resources departments in isolation of rank and file employees.

There are many ways employees can find more joy in their work. The most basic are not so much fun and games, as they are simply more supportive of the workers.

Fostering an environment where people feel empowered to do their best work should be executed long before efforts on creating fun. These can include such sensible things as:

Safe Environment – Ensure that every employee feels physically and emotionally safe to execute his or her job function. If employees are more concerned about their personal safety, they are not going to be able to enjoy any fun activities.

Open Communication – Provide the opportunity for every employee to feel free to speak with others throughout the organization. Keep an open door policy so that all ideas and concerns—both positive and not so positive can be heard.

Meaningful Values – Netflix includes nine behaviors and skills that they value in all employees: judgment, communication, impact, curiosity, innovation, courage, passion, honesty, selflessness. Working around people that embody these nine values would trump all fun activities for me.

Team Building – Provide opportunities where people can bond on topics outside the work they do. This can often be loads of fun with extremely powerful benefit of building trust and teamwork.

Advancement Opportunities – Ensure there is a career path for every employee so that expectations can be met and incentives exist to encourage moving up in the organization.

Flex Time – Perhaps the most fun employees can have is in first ensuring that their personal lives and families are taken into consideration. This could ultimately mean that an employee does not want to have fun at work if it means additional time away from his or her family.

These things will certainly help employees feel more joy in the workplace, which can result in higher employee engagement. They are also likely to improve productivity and that’s the kind of fun we could all use in this economy.

The Pain Relief of Soft Skills

There’s a saying in business that you are either selling aspirin (making a customer’s pain go away) or vitamins (by making the customer’s existing situation better).

My work involves helping individuals and organizations with so-called “soft skills,” or things like interpersonal communication, self-awareness, conflict negotiation, collaboration and leadership. These soft skills are typically considered vitamins more than aspirin. But should they?

In my experience, many organizations suffer a great deal of pain because employees lack proficiency in many of these interpersonal areas. This is because most organizations are challenged more by the relationships between people than by technical problems or business issues. The pain may not be as obvious or easy to measure, but that doesn’t lessen its impact on the bottom line.

The downturn in the economy resulted in slashed budgets of training and development departments, and many departments jettisoned altogether. But what is the cost of not focusing on these people skills both now and in the near future?

According to a study by Indiana Business Research Center, they found that while credentials in the form of degrees and certificates are important, development of soft skills (skills that are more social than technical) are a crucial part of a dynamic workforce. The skills projected to be in highest demand for all Indiana occupations through 2014 include active listening, critical thinking, speaking, active learning, writing, time management, and social perceptiveness.

Research conducted by DePaul University concluded that recruiters want business schools to put more attention on people-oriented skills like leadership and communication. However, students complain that those soft skills won’t get them hired, and they pressure business schools to focus more on functional or technical content.

So which is more important: technical skills or soft skills? It seems to me that you need technical skills to get hired, but soft skills are what help you succeed once you are hired. Both are ultimately important, but technical skills get a lot more attention, especially in a poor economy where securing a job is paramount.

This may be changing. According to a 2007 survey by OfficeTeam, and the International Association of Administrative Professionals, two-thirds of HR managers say they would hire an applicant with strong soft skills whose technical abilities are lacking. Only nine percent of those surveyed said they would hire someone who had strong technical expertise but weak interpersonal skills.

“While office technology skills are very important, excellent interpersonal skills are invaluable and usually more difficult to teach,” said Sandra P. Chandler, president of IAAP.

A 2007 Computerworld survey of hiring and skills reported that IT executives are increasingly looking for people with a broad range of soft skills in addition to their technical abilities. The survey respondents said writing and public speaking are two of the most important soft skills they look for when hiring new employees. Additionally, they want candidates who understand business process, work well with a team, know how to get their points across, are inquisitive, use initiative and are willing to take risks.

Further, a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that although recent MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas employers find equally attractive. These areas include strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

Peggy Klaus, in research for her book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills—Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner, continually encountered people who were not getting where they wanted to go in their careers. “Their problems rarely stemmed from a shortfall in technical or professional expertise, but rather from a shortcoming in the soft skills arena with their personal, social, communication and self-management behaviors.”

Soft skills are important in entry level or unskilled positions too. In a 2008 Job Outlook survey by the National Association of Colleges & Employers, the top characteristics looked for in new hires by 276 employer respondents (mostly from the service sector) were all soft skills: communication ability, a strong work ethic, initiative, interpersonal skills, and teamwork.

If soft skills are so important to employers, why is there so little focus on fostering them in employees? I would argue that during this time of record layoffs and fewer employees being asked to do more of the work, it is vitally important to make each of them more efficient and productive. Soft skills training can be especially helpful in this effort.

Soft skills should not be considered “touchy-feely stuff that’s nice to have, but can’t afford it right now.” Proficiency in these skills separate organizations who may survive yet another year versus those who grow, adapt and are able to compete in a global economy.

Employees proficient in soft skills demonstrate higher employee engagement, greater productivity, and help make an entire organization more competitive in the marketplace.

Though the benefits of soft skills training may be hard to measure in the short term, organizations need to look beyond simple pain relief from a symptom of a much bigger problem and toward a long term, system-wide wellness approach. Soft skills training is key to a healthy organization.

Mark Craemer


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